Your duty of care in averting tragedy

10th November 2000 at 00:00
AS with all tragedies on school visits, the deaths of the two Leeds schoolgirls has raised teachers' concerns about taking pupils off-site.

Negligence arises from the duty of care that teachers have towards their pupils. When a claim for damages is made, a court will consider whether that duty of care was discharged, or whether it was discharged recklessly. The outcome will depend on the facts. And therein lies the rub. Negligence is retrospective. You do something in good faith and afterwards someone accuses you of not doing it properly.

Your defence will be that you assessed all reasonably foresee-able risks, and took steps to eradicate or minimise them. You will have read and put into practice the Department for Education and Employment guidelines Health and Safety of Pupils on Educational Visits. And, where specialist activities are involved, you will probably also have studied the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in PE safe practice handbook.

The three most imprtant considerations to be made are:

what supervision is required for the activities;

what kinds of protection against likely accidents can be reasonably be provided;

what training for staff and pupils will be needed.

Even then circumstances arise that could not have been anticipated at the outset.

At this point, all you can reasonably do is ask yourself: "Would I do what I am about to do if my own children were in the group?" If you hesitate for a second, don't do it. Always err on the side of caution.

Mr Justice McNair summed up the dilemma in 1954. School authorities, when considering the care of children, "must strike a balance between the meticulous supervision of children every moment when they are under their care, and the very desirable object of encouraging the sturdy independence of children as they grow up".

For the most part, teachers strike this balance brilliantly.

Chris Lowe is legal consultant to the Secondary Heads Association

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